Mexican-Asian fusion can be a tricky thing, but Cuco’s, which opened a King Street location different from its other restaurants, pulls it off.
Cuco’s has been a name in Madison for Mexican food for seven years, with Mysael De Vicente Claudio, and his brother, Lazaro, buying a group of restaurants from the original owners, and opening and closing various locations.
Currently the brothers also own Cuco’s restaurants in Beloit, Waunakee and Waupun. They recently closed one in Verona.
The brothers, who are from Puebla, Mexico, are also lending the Cuco’s name to the former I Love Tacos in Middleton, but are not operating it themselves, Mysael De Vicente said.
“We don’t have ownership,” he said. “We are all good friends and family.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, there’s a Cuco’s on Buckeye Road in Madison with different owners.
Cuco’s Mexican Fusion, which opened in mid-May in the former Restaurant Muramoto location on King Street, is the only fusion restaurant in the bunch, and it works particularly well because the space retains a hint of the glamour from its past uses and because people can continue to get sushi there.
The menu offers high-end choices, including filet mignon and Cornish hen, as well as something called borrego lobster, which is lobster tail paired with a lamb chop. On the lower-end are plates like enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas and shrimp tacos.
Then, a Japanese section of the menu features sushi, sashimi, and cooked and raw rolls. There’s also a fusion sushi roll section with rolls like the $20 El Bravo roll with seared salmon, spicy tuna, masago, carnitas, salsa verde and avocado.
We bypassed the fusion rolls and opted for appropriately-named The Great of Madison Roll ($14) with crab meat and queso fresco inside, and raw tuna and avocado draped over the top. Red and black tobiko (fish roe) added more color. The queso fresco worked like cream cheese does in a typical Philadelphia roll.
We started our meal with something more novel, but equally delicious: the jalapeno bomb ($10). These were like jalapeno poppers, but better because the four jalapeno halves were topped with a mound of spicy tuna. It, too, had tobiko, which doesn’t taste like much, but looks pretty. The jalapenos were lightly fried and stuffed with cream cheese to offset the heat. The spice level was perfect. This was a successful fusion.
The guacamole ($6) is more straightforward, but worth ordering. It was smooth, fresh and mild, topped with chopped tomato, onion and cilantro, which was a nice touch. What’s more, it came served in an elegant glass dish.
A friend and I also had luck with the seafood chile relleno ($18), a poblano pepper stuffed with small pieces of scallops, shrimp and crab and covered with an excellent blend of white cheeses. The menu described ancho-citrus sauce, but I didn’t detect it. Mexican rice and beans on the plate were better than average.
We were there on a Wednesday when Concerts on the Square was about to start less than two blocks away. While we weren’t there for the concert, it occurred to me that Cuco’s would be a great pre-concert stop, especially because the restaurant offers two-for-one margaritas ($8) during happy hour.
Six flavors of blended margaritas are available from a set of machines at the bar. I asked the waiter for a sample of the banana one before I committed, and his generous taste was about as much as I needed.
I wound up with a peach margarita on the rocks, while my friend had a classic lime one. “This is so summer, isn’t it?” she said as she sipped out of the oversized glass.
The only complaint I had about my drink was that it was a bit too sweet until halfway through, when the ice melted enough to dilute it. Cuco’s seems to be good when it comes to garnishes — our glasses had slices of orange, lemon and lime hanging from their rims.
Dessert was the only real disappointment, where the ice cream inside the mochi ($6), available only in chocolate and vanilla this night, suffered from freezer burn. Their soft exterior, made from sticky rice cake, wasn’t worth eating, either.
Cuco’s inherited a fantastic outdoor pocket patio from Muramoto. It’s off to the side of the restaurant and overlooks a small parking lot, but manages to be quite charming. The main dining room, meanwhile, lost some of its appeal, mainly due to the garish green lighting over the bar.
Still, as a place to eat before Concerts on the Square or Live on King Street, Cuco’s rises to the top of the list. Service was friendly and attentive the night we were there, but it was also very quiet.
Mysael De Vicente said the restaurant’s exterior signage should be arriving soon, and once it does, hopefully more business will come its way.
After all, The Great of Madison Roll should not be denied.